China’s Naval Fusion Strategy: Civilian Ships

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The People’s Republic of China, which declared its independence after the civil war that lasted from 1927 to 1949, has always attached importance to its military power. In this context, while China is developing economically; He also took care to improve his military capacity. The country has made serious economic breakthroughs, especially with the acceleration of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of opening up in the 1980s. Of course, it has been seen that China, like every other state, needs a strong army to protect and guarantee these breakthroughs. For this reason, China has taken various steps to develop its army and especially its navy. The first example of this situation is the aircraft carrier Liaoning, which was delivered to the People’s Liberation Army on September 25, 2012.[1] Later, this aircraft carrier was followed by the aircraft carriers Shandong and Fujian which is currently under production.[2]

The fact that China is so eager to raise its navy to a level where it can compete with the great powers cannot be explained solely by economic reasons. It is a fact that China has been struggling with regional problems since the past. The most prominent of these is the Taiwan -Issue. Beijing sees the Taiwan Issue as its own internal issue and does not want any outside power to intervene in the issue. Therefore, Taiwan-based tensions are experienced between the United States (US) and China. As a matter of fact, the tension between the parties increased even more when the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited the island and later the US House of Representatives passed a law on the island. In addition, the occurrence of such developments during China’s exercises around Taiwan once again reminded the Beijing administration of the importance of having a strong navy.

Another example that emphasizes the importance of a strong navy is the problem that China faces because of the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Due to the rich natural resources in the region, China is in conflict with Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. It is estimated that there are approximately 190 thousand cubic feet of gas in the region.[3] In addition, the fish and other seafood and rich natural resources of the islands such as the Spratly Islands make the region a center of attraction. In this context, according to the Beijing administration, it is important for China to have the military superiority to solve the issues in its favor and to reach the capacity to prevent foreign interventions.

Research Ships and Ferries

For the reasons mentioned above, China was not content with just developing its navy. It also uses civilian ferries, research ships and small boats in its navy. First of all, the reason why China uses its research ships in this way is to both prevent tensions that may occur with other states by making use of the ships in its navy, and to collect the information it wants at less cost.

China uses civilian research vessels to gather information in areas where tensions may escalate.[4] As a matter of fact, it is known that the unmanned research ship named Zhu Hai Yun has the ability to launch drones and this allows the ship to collect information about the topography of the seabed.[5]

In August 2022, just when India was about to conduct a missile test, China’s Yuan Wang-5 research ship, capable of tracking missiles and satellites, anchored at Hambantota Port [6] which was also built by China. This caused serious tension between China and India. It can be said that with this move, China wants to reach information about India’s missile test.

Ferries are another example of civil naval vessels used for Chinese military purposes. China wants to increase its landing capacity by using civilian-looking ferries and reach the capacity to launch surprise attacks. As a matter of fact, it has been stated in some analyzes that the ferries mentioned have the capacity to organize military operations.[7] According to these analyses, it has become possible to use amphibious vehicles in military landings via ferries during the operation. Moreover, images of military elements boarding civilian ferries were reflected in the news of China’s official media agencies.[8]

As can be understood, while China strengthens the naval vessels by increasing the quantity and quality; on the other hand, it uses civilian ships that can help to throw off the responsibilities when necessary to serve its military and strategic purposes. The usage of research ships with military examination capabilities and civilian ferries with landing capabilities are the most concrete examples of this situation.

Fishing Ships

It is seen that China uses civilian-looking ferries and research vessels to strengthen its navy, as well as making use of fishing vessels for strategic purposes. For example, according to a report published by AP News on September 24, 2022, China has developed this strategy, which has been applied for a long time, by increasing the number of fishing boats.[9] Because the Beijing administration uses these ships to deter other nations’ fishing vessels in regions which have abundant seafood and natural resources, such as the Spartly Islands in the disputed South China Sea. Undoubtedly, this situation reveals how China uses its fishing vessels in disputed areas.

China does not carry out such activities only in order to hold the upper hand in troubled areas. It also carries out fishing activities near the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of other countries. For example, the Galápagos Islands are part of Ecuador, and this country’s EEZ continues in the region where these islands are located. Although China’s fishing boats do not violate the EEZ borders of the states, the fishing activities of Chinese fishing boats in the region continue to increase.[10]

Other countries exposed to this situation are Argentina and Peru. China’s hunting activities do not only harm the countries of the region economically, it also causes damage to endangered species. As a matter of fact, this situation is clearly expressed in some published analyzes.[11]

As a result, China, while incorporating new warships to improve its military capacity at sea; on the other hand, it uses civilian-looking ships for espionage and information gathering activities. Moreover, the Beijing administration monitors the military movements of other nations with its research ships and conducts information gathering activities in disputed areas. It also prepares civilian-looking ferries for possible operations by providing them with landing capabilities. China not only reinforces its presence in these regions by using its fishing vessels in controversial areas, but also engages in hunting activities very close to other countries’ EEZs in a way that harms these states and the environment.

[1] “10th Anniversary of China’s First Aircraft Carrier, The Liaoning”, CGTN,, (Date of Accession: 25.09.20229

[2] Sam Roggeveen, “China’s Third Aircraft Carrier Is Aimed at a Post-U.S. Asia”, Foreign Policy,, (Date of Accession: 25 09.2022)

[3] “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea”, Council on Foreign Relations,, (Date of Accession: 26.09.2022)

[4] “China Is Using Civilian Ships To Enhance Navy Capability and Reach”, CNBC,, (Date of Accession: 27.09.2022)

[5] Kashif Anwar, “Military Potential of China’s Zhu Hai Yun: The World’s First AI-powered Drone Carrier”,, (Date of Accession: 27.09.2022)

[6] Rjat Pandit, “Chinese Spy Ship’s Docking in Sri Lankan Port Spells Long-term Concerns for India”, Times of India,, (Date of Accession: 27.09.20229

[7] Mike Yeo, “China Reportedly Converted Civilian Ferries For Amphibious Assault Operations”, Defence News,, (Date of Accession: 27.09.2022)

[8] “China Is Using Civilian Ships To Enhance Navy Capability and Reach”, CNBC,, (Date of Accession: 27.09.2022)

[9] David Rising, “China Using Civilian ShipsTo Enhance NAvy Capability Reach”, AP News,, (Date of Accession: 28.09.2022)

[10] Steven Lee Myers, vd., “How China Targets the Global Fish Supply”, The New York Times,, (Date of Accession: 28.09.2022).

[11] Ibid.

Elcan TOKMAK, 2022 yılında Gazi Üniversitesi İktisadi İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nden mezun olmuştur. Eylül-Aralık 2022 tarihleri arasında ANKASAM bünyesinde Kariyer Staj Programı'nı tamamlayan Tokmak, Temmuz 2023 tarihinden itibaren ANKASAM Asya-Pasifik Araştırma Asistanı olarak çalışmalarını sürdürmektedir. Şu anda Hacettepe Üniversitesi Uluslararası İlişkiler Bölümü'nde Yüksek Lisans eğitimine devam eden Tokmak'ın ilgi alanları Çin-Japonya-Kore ilişkileri ve Çin Dış Politikası'dır. Tokmak; profesyonel düzeyde İngilizce, orta derecede Çince ve başlangıç düzeyinde Korece bilmektedir.